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Is film dying, or am I overthinking this, again?

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Star Wars Episode V: Empire Strikes Back (LucasFilm)

I think we’re at a point now that television is at its creative peak, while film is in a slump. Television in 2020 is where film was at in the 1970s. Though, I also question if my recent critique of the industry is, if I’m simply a victim of golden age thinking. That in believing that industry is lawless because the gatekeepers care more about money than creativity, where once there was a healthy mix of both. Are today’s mainstream films made for me? Am I the audience for it? In the tint of toxic fan bases (big up Star Wars) Or if simply, most films made today are just bad? When I go to the cinema, am I thinking too hard or do I have unrealistic expectations? Is wanting a good story making bank too much?

I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily bad, just samey. I think the recent Star Wars trilogy is great. It’s flashy. It’s fun. But ultimately, it’s samey. I do understand where my parents’ generation are coming from when they say that they didn’t like the last Star Wars trilogy. I think there are lots of good even excellent films made today, I simply think we the public are too forgiving of mediocrity, whilst praising bad films that are good for business. In lockdown, I’m finding even more so why I prefer films made before 2000, and finding it hard not to say that films made today, generally are in a tough spot compared to when my parents and grandparents were growing up.

I think Moonlight is one of the most beautiful films ever made (A24)

As I mentioned above, television is where film was in the 1970s. Now, before I cause any upset, I’m not generalising, because my favourite film of all time came out in 2011, Midnight in Paris. There are plenty of excellent pictures that have come out in the twenty-first century. From Lord of the Rings to Moonlight. 2017 was a great year, also giving us Dunkirk, Get Out, Logan, The Post, Wind River and Mudbound. Moreover, Detroit and Death of Stalin. I am always impressed with Christopher Nolan and Aaron Sorkin.

And regardless of how much I hear people complain at the lack of originality in the businness today, due to remakes, reboots and so forth, none of that compares to Ghostbuster 2. Nonetheless, that doesn’t detract from how in our complacency as a society we have grown to accept mediocrity over the importance of The Story that dominated film before the turn of the century. I think it was Hitchcock who said “to make a great film, you only need three things – the script, the script, the script.”

In a conversation with another film enthusiast, we were talking about how many filmmakers we like who are also problematic characters. Woody Allen, being one I have a love-hate relationship with. I think he’s one of the funniest writers alive but his controversy makes me uncomfortable to say the least. Clarke Gable, a fabulous actor of Old Hollywood, but he would not have survived #metoo in today’s world. In light of Weinstein, it got me to think about my own biases when watching film and assessing goodness.

The more interesting characters are on TV, from Stannis Baratheon to Frank Underwood (Netflix)

Some people find it difficult to seperate art from the artist, and that inability to split the two can inform bias on a piece of art’s badness. That somebody will dislike any Kevin Spacey film because of what came to light in #metoo. Yet, I still believe he is one of the greatest actors of his generation. How he brings Frank Underwood to life in House of Cards brings tears to my eyes. But from the 1930s through to the back end of the 1980s, it’s racism and sexism galore. i.e like every James Bond film ever!

“I was lucky to get into film at a time that was very interesting for drama. But if you look now, the focus is not on the same kind of films that were made in the 90s. When I look now, the most interesting plots, the most interesting characters, they are on TV.”

Kevin Spacey

Are the things that make bank today made for me? Is there a cultural shift now similar to how the mob genre practically died at the turn of the century? Hollywood does have “Marvel Fever” and I do enjoy them. Yet, there was a point when the industry would green light any western, where John Wayne would be chasing indigenous peoples on horseback. Studios would green-light gangsters and film noir. Hollywood likes what’s good for business. I believe the only difference between now and then, is that people are more complacent, and there’s more of a spoon-feeding culture today.

Avengers Assemble (Marvel Studios)

Before the internet, my parents talk of a time when you had to use your critical faculties where information wasn’t given to you instantaneously. Now, we just expect everything immediately, including stories. The problem is not with what’s being made, it’s with how it’s being made. Quality, not genre. There is a reason why the original Star Wars Trilogy has universal appeal across multiple generations. There is a reason why Steven Spielberg has had an iconic film for every decade of his career with universal appeal.

The problem with many films today is the shift from good storytelling into genre storytelling, replacing good writing with special effects and fan service. I’m a fan of this “superhero fever” but that doesn’t mean I will shy away from critique, and they are very problematic, along with many action blockbusters. The reason why I prefer what Fox did with X-Men, as flawed as it was, is that it focussed on story(ish) and not mythology. With Marvel, it’s always “the next film” but Fox kept me on the present pane of existence.

I loved 2017 because there were many films that kept me grounded. Moonlight, Get Out, La La Land, The Big Sick, Molly’s Game; it was how I get from point A to point B. What about this character? Why should I care about them? 2017 had many films where there were lots of characters that made me feel things, similar to the number of films that came out before 2000. That when I watch Goodfellas, my heart breaks when Tommy (Joe Pesci) gets whacked. Today, I couldn’t care less if this and this person dies.

I am not sure whether that is because I am not the audience, I’m an anomaly or if I am a heartless bastard, or a mixture

Lots of drama films just seem flat. Or am I just not the audience? What ever happend to films like Doubt, where [Queen] Viola Davis gives one of the best performances ever? When I watch works like Netflix series Stranger Things, I remember I have seen it before. I remember my father showing it to me as a kid. It came out in 1985. Sean Astin, Josh Brolin. It’s called Goonies. Though, I loved Get Out, the golden egg in the sea of turds that was the 2018 Best Picture race. Interesting story. Explored its characters. Emotional resonance. Jordan Peele, then followed that with Us. Fab.

Doubt (Walt Disney Studios)

Yet, I’ve seen some great ones recently, including: The Post, Spotlight and The Big Short. They are great in the moment but forgettable, as much as I hate to admit it. Where have all the writers gone? Honestly, they’re killing it on television. God bless Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Television is film in the 1970s: Killing Eve, Clone Wars, Girls, House of Cards, Westworld. When something as excellent as Scorsese’s Silence tanked in the box office, this is when you know there’s a culture shift, and it broke my heart to see that.

Take Last Kingdom (on the Netflix platform), a medieval historical drama series that has the storytelling Outlaw King / The King wish they did. Excellent characters, brooding, and emotional resonance (as any drama should be)

Whilst stories like Last Kingdom would once be made as films (Braveheart), they’re now being made as television series. Whilst lack of original ideas, focus on remakes, sequels etc etc could be used as a reason to justify the decline of film, a more plausible reason could be that television was never really a credible competition for film until recently (last 10 – 15 years). In addition to marketing, particularly trailers (and samey posters). Pre-2000, you’d have once had some interesting posters. Now, most look done to template. Ultimately, boring. Yet, this seems to be good for business.

Trailers do not represent the film, and often miss the feel of the film. One of my favourite films ever made is Goodbye Christopher Robin on the relationship between children’s author A. A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin (or Billy). A drama film whose trailers sells it as a light-hearted early to mid 20th century period drama about families. But when you watch the film, it’s about post traumatic disorder and one man’s quest in overcoming the angst of war. Thus we have the children’s classic Winnie the Pooh.

It presents Alan Milne as a product of a generation of men who were socialised into thinking that “affection” is a bad thing. Toxic masculinnity tied with the trauma of war made for a troubled relationship between him and his son. Its trailers make it seem like a harmless period costume drama but it explores the trauma of war and the emotional distance, of people who were products of that Victorian “common sense” nonsense at the turn of the 20th century. I implore all to watch it but its trailers certain missell it.

Last Kingdom (Netflix)

Going back to how I started this blog entry, I really do enjoy many films that are released today. However, I know many of them to be nothing but autopilot drivel that are specacle more than anything else. I know I would sooner watch a good television show but I still enjoy the novelty of going to the cinema and seeing something on a massive screen. Even if I know I won’t necessarily like what’s on show. I do wish some of these TV writers would come back to cinema because the quality is fading and it shows.

And I do often wonder if in the near future we will get to a point where companies like the BBC, HBO, Netflix or Amazon Prime will start to show episodes of television at cinemas in the same way we pay go to watch films

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